In 2007, Franz Gayl, a civilian Marine Corps science advisor, went public with concerns about delays delivering armored vehicles requested by troops in Iraq. His revelations contributed to stories (like this one) in USA Today examining how equipment shortages put soldiers at risk. As a result of speaking out, Gayl’s security clearances were suspended and he was placed on administrative leave.

“Somehow you’ve got to put a gun to the bureaucracy’s head to make them behave,” he said.

Gayl is one of four whistleblowers featured in Robert Greenwald’s new documentary, War on Whistleblowers: Free Press and the National Security State, which premiered at the Sunshine Cinema in Manhattan on Wednesday and was followed by a panel discussion. The film interweaves the whistleblowers’ narratives and interviews with journalists and government accountability advocates.

All the whistleblowers featured in the film turned to the press, Greenwald told CJR in a pre-premiere interview, after hitting “brick walls” in their internal chains of command. By doing so, they risked professional ruin and even possible jail time if convicted under the 1917 Espionage Act.

Whistleblowing has been called “the sound of professional suicide,” as one advocate puts it in the film. But when antipathy for revealing information flows from the top, the dangers go beyond a derailed career. The film is particularly critical of the Obama administration, arguing that the President’s approach to national security information threatens press freedom and American democracy — and falls short of campaign promises for greater transparency. The film points out that just a few months into Obama’s second term, the administration has prosecuted more alleged leakers under the Espionage Act than all past administrations combined.

Thomas Drake, another whistleblower profiled in the film (the other two are Thomas Tamm and Michael DeKort,) is one subject of what New York Times columnist Bill Keller has called the administration’s “chilling intolerance” for leaks. A former senior executive in the National Security Agency, Drake was facing up to 35 years in prison for disclosing information about the government’s digital surveillance programs. He eventually pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge for “exceeding the authorized use of a computer.” Stripped of his security clearances, he now works full time at an Apple store in the Washington suburbs.

“Speaking truth to power is now a criminal act,” Drake says in the film.

At the panel following the screening, Gayl, Democracy Now!’s Amy Goodman, USA Today reporter Tom Vanden Brook, The Nation publisher and editor Katrina vanden Heuvel and New York Times public editor Margaret Sullivan discussed the impact of whistleblower prosecutions on reporting.

Goodman referred to “the Access of Evil,” a play on former President George W. Bush’s term for US enemies in the war on terror. It’s a form of tacit bargaining in which journalists trade reporting on the truth for access to those in power, she said.

To that end, Vanden Brook recounted a warning he received after reporting on the armored vehicles supply issue.

“I was taken aside by a senior Defense Department official who told me that people wouldn’t talk to me anymore if I wrote stories like that,” he said. “It was an attempt to intimidate. That’s the message that’s sent when you do aggressive reporting.”

And while the government’s logic for its crackdown on aggressive reporting focuses on the potential damage of disclosures, Vanden Brook said that keeping facts from the public exacts a high price — as in the case of the armored vehicle requests. A Pentagon official told USA Today that the troops in the requested vehicles were as much as 14 times more likely to survive a roadside explosion than if they were riding in Humvees.

“Information that doesn’t get out that should get out ends up taking lives,” Vanden Brook said.

The film takes pains to distinguish between “whistleblowers” — those who call out fraud, waste, or abuse — and “leakers” who act without concern for the public interest. Goodman cautioned journalists to be wary of providing leakers with a forum to spread false information, pointing to the New York Times’s critical review of its own Iraq War coverage as an example.

“We’re not going to talk about that,” said Sullivan, the public editor, who moderated the panel.

The panelists did discuss what security secrets should be kept under wraps, such as military movements. Gayl, who served as a Marine prior to his civilian career with the Corps, sympathized with Pfc. Bradley Manning, the WikiLeaks source who has been charged under the Espionage Act and could face life in prison.

“I can put myself in his shoes,” he said. “It comes down to intent.”

Greenwald hopes the film will serve as a rallying call to increase pressure on the Obama administration’s policies around transparency. As Politico reported last week, the government’s whistleblower protection policies are divisive even within the administration and have come under legal scrutiny.

Last year the president issued a directive extending protections to national security and intelligence workers who blow the whistle internally — they aren’t covered under the Whistleblower Protection Enhancement Act — but critics note that it leaves those who talk to the press out in the cold.

“To the degree that lawyers in the Obama administration and the Bush administration, and lawyers in private contractors, are trying to silence those whistleblowers and threaten journalists, that’s not pleasant but it’s a real testament to their power,” Greenwald said.

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Susan Armitage is a freelance reporter in New York City working on a master's degree at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism